MEXICO CITY — Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador won’t be on the ballot when voters go to the polls June 6 in the largest election in the nation’s history.
But he might as well be.
The election, which will determine control of 15 state governments and the lower house of Congress, is widely viewed as a referendum on López Obrador and his polarizing presidency.
A blunt-talking populist who presents himself as a champion of the poor — and whose critics label him a power hungry demagogue — López Obrador has an enviable 63% approval rating despite Mexico’s coronavirus-ravaged economy and unrelenting violence.
Morena, the political party he founded just seven years ago, is expected to perform well, capturing a majority of governorships and the biggest share of seats in the legislature.
But the crucial question for AMLO, as López Obrador is known, is whether Morena and its coalition of allies can maintain a supermajority in Congress. He’ll need that, along with a majority of state legislatures, in order to pass constitutional reforms key to his self-described “Fourth Transformation” — an ambitious political project to roll back the free-market economic policies of his predecessors along with the inequality and corruption that he says they spurred.
“What’s at stake is nothing less than the future of Mexico,” said Pamela Starr, a professor of international relations at USC, during a recent panel on the midterm elections. “Voters are really choosing between two competing visions of the future, between López Obrador’s ‘Fourth Transformation’ and to a certain extent a return to the policies that preceded it.”
The campaign has reached a fever pitch in recent weeks, with the opposition painting López Obrador as a stubborn autocrat who mishandled the pandemic and has scared away international investors.
López Obrador has fought back — dismissing his foes as “neoliberal” elites — running afoul of Mexican election laws that prohibit sitting presidents from influencing the vote. The National Electoral Institute, a government body, has sanctioned the president, saying he illegally interfered in the voting process in 29 news conferences since the election season opened last month.
López Obrador’s latest outburst came Friday, when he lashed out at an editorial in the Economist magazine that described him as a “false messiah” and urged voters to reject his party.
“It’s propaganda,” he said. “They call on Mexicans not to vote for what we represent.”
López Obrador is often grouped with other populist leaders who have taken power globally in recent years, including President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and former President Trump.
But while he is frequently described as a leftist, AMLO’s politics defy easy categorization.
Since taking office 2½ years ago he has vastly expanded social welfare programs but also embraced government austerity with a fervor that calls to mind Britain’s Margaret Thatcher.
He has halted new wind and solar farms in favor of a nationalistic, state-centered energy policy heavily reliant on fossil fuels.
And — most troubling to his adversaries — he has targeted autonomous agencies meant to check the president’s power and has attacked other institutions, including the media, that dare to counter his own narrative about his government’s achievements. He has also drawn closer to the military, putting it in charge of a slew of tasks once reserved for civilians.
But AMLO’s critics have struggled to find political footing.
Members of Mexico’s military salute during an official reception last week for U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Canadian Defense Minister Rob Nicholson in Mexico City. The Mexican military is believed to have long committed abuses with impunity.
López Obrador won the presidency in a landslide in his third try, in 2018, fueled by widespread anger at earlier leaders who failed to quell flagrant corruption, rising violence and entrenched economic inequality.
In this election cycle, the country’s three traditional political parties have put aside their long-standing rivalries and ideological conflicts to form a coalition to oppose Morena. But polls show the opposition coalition gaining only about a quarter of the seats in the lower house of Congress.
Much of that is thanks to López Obrador’s uncanny ability to shape popular opinion.
Every morning he speaks to the nation for two to three hours on a live broadcast from the National Palace. An amateur historian, he talks at length about how Mexico’s free-market reforms beginning in the 1980s benefited the rich and left the poor behind.
And yet his policies have failed to put a dent in poverty, which last year increased from 36% of the population to 45%, according to the national social development agency Coneval, a rise fueled by the pandemic. Violence, too, continues unabated, with about 80 candidates and politicians killed in this election cycle alone, a testament to the close links between many local governments and organized crime.
Even though polls show that Mexicans are worried about the economy, the pandemic and crime, AMLO receives high marks for “closeness to the people,” said pollster Javier Marquez. “People still think that this president understands them and their needs more than anybody else,” he said.
It is unclear whether that will translate to support for Morena.
While López Obrador has carefully crafted his own image, he has been less disciplined when it comes to developing Morena into a strong political party that stands for anything more than support for AMLO.
There has been infighting between ideologically opposed factions and complaints that the party’s candidates are chosen by fiat, and often lack popular support.
Several high-profile members have been accused of corruption, and a major rift opened this year when the party’s candidate for governor in the state of Guerrero was accused of rape and sexual assault by several women, including a Morena party member.
Carlos Bravo Regidor, a professor at CIDE, a public research center in Mexico City, said López Obrador’s lack of interest in building up the party shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“Precisely because he’s a charismatic leader who wants to have a direct link with people, he’s allergic to institutions that would mediate that relationship,” he said.
There are other factors at play in the election, including whether the pandemic, which has killed nearly half a million people here, according to official estimates, might keep voters at home.
Perhaps sensing an electoral disappointment, López Obrador has in recent months publicly attacked the two institutions that oversee elections, declaring that they “were created to prevent democracy.”
Some analysts wonder if he is preparing his supporters not to accept the results if Morena doesn’t win big.
After López Obrador’s two presidential losses, in 2006 and 2016, he refused to admit defeat and led major protests in the streets. He still embraces the identity he forged then, as an underdog fighting against a corrupt system.
“There’s a real possibility they will declare fraud,” said
Mariano Sánchez-Talanquer, a professor of international studies at the College of Mexico. “He has done it before.”
(Cecilia Sanchez in The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.)